The red maple is a popular shade tree for landscapes with moist, fertile soils. Hardy to USDA zones 3 to 10, it is a fast-growing plant that sheds many seeds each year, creating a carpet of seedlings. Its roots are surface-dwelling, making it difficult to grow and cut turfgrass around it, as well as cultivating flower and vegetable beds nearby. The red maple is drought-tolerant, but looks and grows its finest if not subjected to hot, dry soils.
Rufino Osario, in his "A Gardener's Guide to Florida's Native Plants," mentions that the red maple (Acer rubrum) has the widest north-to-south range of any tree native to the eastern United States. Red maple occurs naturally in moist, open meadows, river basins and woodlands from southeastern Canada to the Everglades in southern Florida, and east Texas.
Red maple is a large single-trunked tree that attains a mature height of 40 to 70 feet. Its bark is thin and corky and a grayish light brown in color. Its trunk may have a diameter or 20 to 26 inches. The tree naturally grows with open, spreading branches to create a somewhat rounded crown of leaves. Often the tree is slightly irregular in the shape of its canopy, perhaps upright with jagged, interesting-looking branches.
Red maple is among the first native North American trees to bloom in the early to mid-spring, from February to March. Trees are monoecious, having both male and female flowers present. The tiny red flowers usually have both male and female floral parts in the same flower, but in some trees male and female flowers may occur on separate branches. Flowering is heaviest on the uppermost twigs in the tree's canopy and are pollinated by the wind. Bees often assist in pollination.
Fruits and Seeds
Pollinated flowers, including those that are only female in gender, ripen into reddish or pink-tinted fruits called samaras. The samara is papery and encases a seed, often called a "helicopter" by children as the winged samara catches the wind and spirals downward to the ground. The seeds are produced in abundance each year and germinate in early summer all around the base of the mother tree. Seeds remain viable over the winter and may germinate the following spring too.
Like other species of maple, the red maple has the characteristic pointed, lobed leaves. Each leaf has a thin petiole stem and is arranged alternately on each twig. A leaf is 2 to 4 inches in length and width, with 3 to 5 pointed lobes. The leaf edges are also toothed or jagged. The leaf is green with a slightly more grayish-green underside. In autumn the foliage changes to brilliant shades of scarlet, red, burgundy or maroon. In the southernmost United States, the fall foliage color is subdued because of a lack of a long, chilly autumn, especially in peninsular Florida.